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date: 21 September 2023

St John's Wood cliquefree

(act. 1863–1890)

St John's Wood cliquefree

(act. 1863–1890)
  • Colin Cruise

St John's Wood clique (act. 1863–1890), was an informal London-based group of artists brought together by the painter and photographer David Wilkie Wynfield. It is sometimes referred to as the St John's Wood school to distinguish it from a group of Royal Academy students simply called ‘the clique’, formed about 1837, that included Richard Dadd and Augustus Egg among its members. Several of the St John's Wood artists had trained at Leigh's Academy in London or had connections through periods of study in various Parisian ateliers where they had formed lasting friendships with other English students; others had trained at Carey's Academy and several had spent some time as students at the Royal Academy Schools. The existence of the St John's Wood clique and other such groups can be seen as evidence of both the rise of art training alternatives in the nineteenth century and the professional opportunities that London afforded at this time. Influence and connection were of the highest importance for this generation of students and young artists.

With Wynfield were a boisterous group consisting of Philip Hermogenes Calderon, John Evan Hodgson, George Dunlop Leslie (1835–1921), Henry Stacy Marks, George Adolphus Storey (1834–1919), and William Frederick Yeames. Eyre Crowe, whose paintings prefigure many of the characteristics of the clique's historical genre works, was nominated an 'honorary member', as were Frederick Walker and George Du Maurier. Arguably, but perhaps significantly, all three of these honorary members are now more celebrated than the original members of the clique. Valentine Cameron Prinsep, who had started his career as a follower of the Pre-Raphaelites, was also an honorary member. He and Marks had already belonged to an earlier group of young artists, actors, musicians and journalists called ‘the circle’.

Following their student years and at the beginnings of professional careers in the early 1860s, many of these artists had moved to the north London suburb of St John's Wood where several older artists had already settled. John Rogers Herbert, for example, the well-known painter of religious and historical works, had made his home there in the 1840s. Not fashionable, the district was close to both town and country and offered affordable and picturesque housing.

Henry Stacy Marks, one of the most successful artists of the group, observes in his memoirs, Pen and Pencil Sketches (1894), that the clique was 'an ill-chosen name'. He preferred the alternative 'the gridirons' (Marks, 1.147), by which they were known by some of their contemporaries. At important group meetings members wore a lapel badge representing a gridiron and it appeared as an engraved emblem, with the text 'Ever on thee', at the head of the members' notepaper. The emblem represented the spirit of critical interrogation practised by the members at weekly discussions of each other's work. Unlike the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, formed in 1848, the St John's Wood clique had no statement of general intent. Their agenda was about excellence and professional visibility and advancement rather than a call to overthrow the status quo of English art or its institutions. Their works show no influence from the technically experimental paintings of contemporary French artists, like Edouard Manet for instance, whom they knew during his residence in London.

Paintings by members of the clique show a tendency towards the production of a certain kind of historical painting, genre historique, always depicting scenes from British history rather than classical or other historical periods or sites. In this they are distinct from Lawrence Alma-Tadema, the Dutch painter of classical genre scenes who eventually settled in the same area of London and was an important part of the wider St John's Wood social network. The most striking similarity of practice can be found in the works of the former students of Robert Scott Lauder in Scotland, several of whom, like John Pettie and William Quiller Orchardson, came to London to seek success and found it in their particular treatment of history and the historical novel.

The type of history painting practised by the St John's Wood clique differs from that recommended by Sir Joshua Reynolds in his Discourses on Art delivered to students at the Royal Academy during the 1760s. Reynolds suggests that history painting is the highest branch of pictorial art and is both ideal in character and synthetic in method, combining the features of several models and striving for nobility rather than violence of expression. St John's Wood pictures often had a stronger emphasis on character and accessory than was thought proper to history painting. Their depictions of history often exposed the folly or vulnerability of their powerful subjects rather than their nobility. Kings, queens, and great statesmen were represented as human, even flawed. Many of the earliest paintings of Calderon and Marks illustrate scenes from Shakespeare's plays.

The tendency to represent story through subtle facial expression and characteristic gesture was derived from the British genre painting developed in the early years of the nineteenth century in works by Sir David Wilkie and William Mulready. It might be said that St John's Wood painting combined both categories of painting, ‘high’ and ‘low’, upon one canvas. They depicted incidents of the past, often humorous, sometimes dramatic or solemn, and were seen to be innovative in making the past seem at once familiar and engaging. Their attention to the specific detail of historical dress, while inimical to the academic ideal of general truth, was a feature of their major works and often remarked on by critics.

The most successful of the artists were able to adapt their works to the changes of public taste during their careers. For example, the decline of interest in the middle ages saw subjects from Tudor and civil-war history gaining popularity. Yeames was particularly clever in moving from the diplomatic history of Tudor England in Queen Elizabeth Receiving the French Ambassadors after the News of the Massacre of St Bartholemew (exh. RA, 1866) to a civil-war set piece, And When Did You Last See Your Father? (exh. RA, 1878; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) and the social manners of the Queen Anne period in The Last Bit of Scandal (1876) in which two members of London high society exchange gossip from their sedan chairs. Such scenes reflect, if distantly, the newly fashionable taste of the aesthetic movement for the Queen Anne style.

From the mid-1860s onwards Marks, Hodgson, Leslie, Wynfield, and Yeames sat on the selection committee of London's Dudley Gallery. The general exhibitions at the Dudley were inaugurated as an opportunity to show watercolours but developed into a major exhibiting society with separate seasonal exhibitions of oil paintings, illustrations, and drawings. The work of the clique was also featured at the annual exhibitions of the Royal Watercolour Society. Both these organizations proved to be important outlets for their particular kind of painting and helpful in both increasing sales and attracting reviews. It was the Royal Academy, however, that was to be most significant for the critical success of the clique's paintings as well as for their professional advancement. Calderon was the first of his friends to be created an associate of the Royal Academy, in 1864, an example followed by other members of the group in the following years.

In 1866 Calderon, Yeames, and Wynfield rented Hever Castle in Kent; it was to be used as a backdrop for many of the historical reconstructions that were such an important feature of paintings by members of the clique. Hever was also the site of the kind of social gatherings that were to distinguish the group. Various memoirs record favourite social activities: group walks, picnics, trips into the country, musical soirées. In these, members of the clique were accompanied by honorary members and invited guests. Their indulgence in amateur theatricals and music making, entertainments, dressing up in fancy historical costume and smoking tobacco was hardly the stuff of high bohemianism but it did represent an escape from social convention. One of the ventures associated with the clique and its wider circle was the formation of the Moray Minstrels, an amateur concert party named after Moray Lodge, the Campden Hill home of the silk merchant Arthur Lewis. Several members of the clique also joined the Arts Club, which had been instigated by Lewis at Hanover Square in 1863.

A diverse network of friendships formed around the St John's Wood clique, including Frederic Leighton, James Abbott MacNeill Whistler, John Everett Millais, and Edward Burne-Jones. The names of these and other celebrated artists are liberally mentioned in published memoirs which sometimes appear to be no more than a record of such notables. These artists frequented the studios of members of the clique and attended their parties. Du Maurier was often present at gatherings and he represented several clique members in his Punch caricatures, as did Linley Sambourne, placing their likenesses at the celebratory, rather than the truly satirical, heart of English culture. The friendship of Valentine Cameron Prinsep brought the clique into the orbit of the Little Holland House set, which included George Frederick Watts and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Through George Dunlop Leslie, whose father Charles Robert Leslie was a successful painter, the clique was connected to the group of influential academicians.

Social cohesiveness was perhaps more important than aesthetic considerations. Indeed, if the St John's Wood clique is now not regarded as significant in the history of English painting it has a special place in the history of the formation of artists and of their social position within Victorian society in the 1860s and 1870s. Social mobility was a feature of that society and artists were visible and could be successful within it. However, art and its practitioners were viewed with some suspicion in respectable society. In this period in particular a deep suspicion of bohemian groups was expressed openly in the press. Such admonition was never offered to the St John's Wood clique. Their paintings, often described as 'manly', were contrasted to the more daring work of Simeon Solomon and Burne-Jones who were condemned as 'effeminate'.

A short extract from G. D. Leslie's The Inner Life of the Royal Academy (1914) sums up much of the atmosphere conveyed in many reminiscences of this largely overlooked group of artists:

At an entertainment given by Mr. Storey and myself at our studios, which, at that time, were above one another over a baker's shop in St John's Wood, the other members of the Clique arrived by a preconcerted arrangement, dressed in all sorts of fancy costumes. Prinsep and Du Maurier came later than the rest, together with Sir William Agnew and his elder brother Tom. They dressed in ordinary evening clothes. This, however, did not suit Val [Prinsep], and from our costume-boxes he very soon arrayed himself in various odds and ends, in which he looked, I thought, the quaintest and most picturesque of the whole gathering. After supper we adjourned to Storey's studio, above. There was a piano here on which Tom Agnew played whilst we whirled round the room in the maddest and wildest dance that I ever engaged in.

Leslie, 188–9

In the early years of the twentieth century the St John's Wood clique was quickly forgotten and their industrious networking and exhibiting, always accompanied by lively entertainments, was supplanted by the more excessive bohemianism of Fitzrovia.


  • J. Hacking, Princes of Victorian bohemia (2000)
  • B. Hillier, ‘The St John's Wood clique’, Apollo, 79 (1964), 490–95
  • G. D. Leslie, The inner life of the Royal Academy (1914)
  • L. Ormond, George Du Maurier (1969)
  • H. S. Marks, Pen and pencil sketches, 2 vols. (1894)
  • J. G. Marks, ed., The life and letters of Frederick Walker ARA (1896)
  • M. Stephen Smith, Art and anecdote: memories of William Frederick Yeames R.A., his life and his friends (1927)
  • G. A. Storey, Sketches from memory (1899)